I recently took on a personal challenge to eat on $1.50 a day for five days. I was apprehensive and didn’t think I could do it. Here’s my story.
WHY I DID IT
Knowing that so many people struggle to feed themselves and their families made me feel obligated to give it a try. I wanted to understand what 1.4 billion people experience in their daily lives. Also, as a person on a whole-food, plant-based diet, I wanted to see what such a diet would look like on an austere budget.
WHAT WAS NEEDED
I realized early on that three important factors would make my five-day trial a success.
- The first was knowledge: what food items are cheap and provide an adequate amount of calories and nutrients per dollar? I found that starchy plant foods ⎯ lentils, beans, rice, potatoes, carrots, corn tortillas, and beans would meet these needs. Whole-grain pasta and flour, though moderately processed, also fit the bill and seemed an appropriate compromise under the circumstances.
- The second factor was accessibility: where could I find cheap ingredients and how easy or difficult would it be to obtain them? I found that nearby discount stores (like 99-cent stores) had the basics that I needed.
- The third factor was time: I needed to find the time to cook. In order to get an adequate amount of food for the money, I could not eat pre-made meals. I planned on being efficient by cooking several meals at a time.
WHAT I BOUGHT
I started the challenge by spending the majority of my five-day $7.50 budget on the following ingredients at my local 99-cent store:
- 10 lb. bag of potatoes = 99¢
- 2 lb. bag of carrots = 99¢
- 1 lb. bag of brown rice = 99¢
- 1 lb. bag of brown lentils = 99¢
- 2/3 lb. of brown rice pasta = 99¢
- 2 cans of tomato sauce = 99¢
I also bought ½ lb. of organic oatmeal (from the bulk section of Whole Foods) for 42¢. And finally, I set aside 30¢ for some spices from my pantry.
TOTAL SO FAR: $6.72
WHAT I GOT
Here’s how my loot shook out:
- One cup of lentils makes a lot of soup – actually four big bowls! Since there are 2½ cups of lentils in a 1-pound pack, I was able to make ten bowls!
- One cup of brown rice will make about 1½ cups of cooked rice – good enough for 3 to 4 meals. There are 2½ cups of rice in a 1-pound pack.
- The ½ lb. of oatmeal would give me 1½ lbs cooked oatmeal.
- The bag of potatoes contained about 18 small to medium potatoes, enough to be a substantial portion of each day’s intake.
- The 2/3 lb. of pasta made about five cups, enough for four large meals.
WHAT I ATE
Here was my daily menu:
- Day 1: Masala mashed potatoes, lentil stew with spices, carrots and brown rice. I divided it into three meals, which was plenty for the day. I even had leftovers!
- Day 2: Oatmeal with carrots, boiled potatoes seasoned with salt and pepper, leftover lentil stew and fresh carrots. Again, I had plenty to eat.
- Day 3: Potato stew with tomato sauce, leftover brown rice and lentil stew, and fresh carrots.
- Day 4: Baked potatoes, brown rice with carrots, curry-flavored oatmeal with carrots, sprouted lentil dal. I really enjoyed my food this day ⎯ sprouting the lentils made them taste fresh and light, and baked potatoes are so good! I bought a lime this day for 33¢ (pricey for one lime!), because I was missing sour flavors.
- Day 5: Pasta with tomato sauce, lentils, and carrots, plus baked potatoes. And I spent the remaining 45¢ on ½ lb. of fresh organic spinach! There was enough pasta left over for lunch the next day. I also ended up with about two pounds of unused potatoes.
GRAND TOTAL: $7.50
WHAT I LEARNED
Eating on a low budget oriented me toward simple, unprocessed food. I actually felt quite healthy!
The main lesson I learned is that to feed a hungry world we need to focus our resources on simple starchy staple foods, which provide the highest number of reasonably nutritious calories for the least amount of money.
I also realized that living on a healthy, plant-based diet does not have to be expensive. While eating a plant-based diet on $1.50 per day was inconvenient and challenging, I found it to be surprisingly satisfying. While $1.50 per day may be particularly extreme, it is still entirely possible to be sufficiently nourished, even at that level. This is great news for students and those on fixed incomes.